ANOTHER BENEFIT OF HYDRO: Taking Hydropower to Schools

Avista Utilities, headquartered in Spokane, Wash., has been conducting tours of its eight hydroelectric plants for students for more than a century. Over the years, tour conductors have offered one common observation – students almost universally had no background in hydropower and had a poor grasp of what they were seeing and how the plants worked.

In 1995, the utility (formerly known as Washington Water Power) developed a pilot project for the “It’s Hydrological” program, which began in earnest three years later. Today, the program involves 60 to 70 classroom presentations to 1,500 to 2,000 students each year, as well as 50 to 60 plant tours. By hearing a classroom presentation – usually about a week before participating in a plant tour – students get far more out of the field trip experience than without pre-tour preparation.

The “It’s Hydrological” program

The “It’s Hydrological” program began with three goals:

– Increase understanding of hydro generation to make tours more beneficial;

– Educate students about the benefits of hydro as a low-cost, non-polluting, renewable energy source; and

– Transmit information about public safety around dams, particularly near spillways and intake areas.

The classroom presentation demonstrates how dams produce hydroelectric power. An Avista employee presents the program in classrooms throughout the company’s service territory, which covers more than 30,000 square miles. The utility owns five hydro plants in Washington, two in Idaho, and one in Montana, with a total capacity of almost 1,000 MW.

During Avista Utilities’ “It’s Hydrological” hands-on classroom program, students use a scale model hydroelectric system to generate electricity and light up appliances in a model home. They learn how hydro plants produce electricity, the pros and cons of hydropower, and how to be safe around dams.

The one-hour, hands-on classroom presentation includes elements of math, physics, and social studies. It features an aquarium-size, three-dimensional scale model of a complete hydroelectric system, including a miniature hand-crank generator. The model, which is made of metal and plastic, contains no water. Instead, turning the hand crank simulates the turbine rotating the shaft and spinning the generator. To illustrate “peaking power,” the model shows the need for more electricity production when additional electrical appliances are used.

The presenter describes the water cycle (from condensation to evaporation) and renewable versus non-renewable sources of electricity generation. While the presentation primarily highlights the many benefits of hydroelectricity, the presenter addresses both positive and negative effects of hydroelectric generation, the controversial salmon issue, and fish mortality caused by passing through turbines.

Avista Utilities coordinates 50 to 60 hydroelectric plant tours a year for students as part of the “It’s Hydrological” program.

Another discussion topic is the difference between conductors and insulators. A favorite question to the students is, “As you grew up, you all learned that water and electricity don’t mix. For example, Joe here might take a bubble bath while he listens to a hard-wired CD player or MP3 amplifier plugged into an electrical outlet. If he puts the CD player on a shelf above the bathtub and the CD player falls into the tub, Joe is going to have a very BAD day. So, if water and electricity don’t mix, then how can we actually GET electricity from water at a dam, without the whole system going POOF, just like Joe?” (Answer: students learn that it’s the generator, not the turbine, that actually produces electricity; unlike the turbine, the generator never touches the water, and insulators keep the electricity from passing back into the turbine.)

The presentation also includes an interactive slide show and a question and answer session. During the slide show, students see pictures of turbine runners and generator windings, as well as examples of warning buoys, boater safety cables, and public safety warning signage. The presentation concludes with student “hands-on” operation of the hydro model and several clear plastic “generator flashlights” that use a circular magnet that spins between two coils of copper.

After the classroom presentation, most classes take a field trip to an Avista hydro facility. The most impressive tours occur during the spring run-off, when students get scenic views of the cascading river passing through (or over) dam spillways. About 80 percent of the student tours occur at the 15-MW Post Falls plant in Idaho, about 9 miles downstream of Lake Coeur d’Alene at the source of the Spokane River, and the 10-MW Upper Falls plant located 28 miles downstream in downtown Spokane, Wash. These two facilities have few stairs, making them more accessible to visitors than other plants. The author conducts some tours, and plant operators conduct the rest. Avista allows visitors to take photos and videos inside and outside of the two plants, and photos of Post Falls’ 1906 vintage (and still operating) generators are especially popular. For security reasons, Avista restricts tour photos at its three large facilities: 466-MW Noxon Rapids, 265-MW Cabinet Gorge, and 71-MW Long Lake.

Some teachers prepare for the presentation by scheduling it after a classroom unit on electricity. Some learn along with their students. Overall, about 60 percent of the teachers do some kind of prep work, and some teachers do follow-up with post presentation/tour assignments on renewable energy.

Developing the program

During a trial-and-error development process in school classrooms, Avista employees noticed a marked difference in attention span and comprehension between third and fourth graders. As a result, they decided to offer the presentation and tours only to students in fourth grade and above.

In addition to classroom trials, planners worked with area teachers to develop a “hydro pop-up,” a paper cut-out model of a dam, for all students attending a presentation.

The “It’s Hydrological” program is low cost, since Avista hires no additional employees to implement it. Aside from the original cost for the hydro model (about $3,000 from Dunau & Associates, a communication and marketing consultant in Spokane), the only expenses are transportation costs for the presenter and about $10 per class for handout materials (including the hydropower pop-up). Generator flashlights are purchased online from Edmund Scientific for about $15 each.

Classroom teachers schedule a program by contacting the utility. Teachers can learn about the program through a link on Avista’s Internet site,, but most of the presentations occur via word-of-mouth. The utility incurs no advertising or publicity expense. Avista pays for program costs out of its Environmental Affairs Department budget.

Reaching out

Although most presentations are for students in grades four through six, Avista schedules about ten sessions a year with older students. In 2006 and 2007, the company conducted a two-hour presentation to freshmen and sophomores at Spokane Falls Community College, as part of a combination English/Physics class.

During summer months, teacher workshops at the Northwest Natural Resource Institute and Project WET, two environmental education groups, include an adapted version of the program. That way, teachers outside the Avista service area (who aren’t eligible for the presentation) can pass along the hydro message to their students.

The “It’s Hydrological” program has met its goals. The program continues as an ongoing part of Avista’s community interaction efforts. The program is popular with participating teachers, and about 90 to 95 percent of them request another presentation the following year. In addition to the positive public relations benefits, the presentations and tours educate students about the necessity of using renewable, low-cost, non-polluting resources like hydropower. “It’s Hydrological” also augments Avista’s public safety program by showing students the proper precautions to take, both when dealing with electricity and when fishing, boating, swimming, and camping near dams. The program could be beneficial to any utility seeking additional corporate goodwill and wishing to inform students (future stakeholders and customers) of the benefits of hydropower generation.

– By David J. Ayres, hydro safety & security coordinator, Avista Utilities


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